WASHINGTON — The verdicts are in and only one thing seems certain. No one in two sensational U.S. military sexual assault cases is innocent — not the general or his woman scorned nor the Naval Academy midshipman and his once reluctant accuser nor for that matter the woeful system that prosecuted the whole mess.
To paraphrase a legal adage, bad cases often bring bad results, and that above anything else seems to be the conclusion here. Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair escapes without jail time after being charged with forcing a sexual act on his ex-mistress, an allegation that could have brought him life in prison. He gets reprimanded and fined $20,000. He now just wants to hug his wife and kids. I’ll bet he does, if they’re dumb enough to accept him.
The mistress — who was his regular bedmate for three years — gets to keep her anonymity (at least in the national press) but loses her veracity by apparently lying about a key bit of evidence, resulting in the general’s lenient sentence.
One might say these two deserve each other. Maybe they should be the ones to hug or whatever and make up.
At least Sinclair, the highest ranking officer to be tried for an adulterous affair, was expected to have enough judgment to avoid such a dangerous liaison. He had full knowledge of the cardinal rule he was breaking. That simply is that one can do anything in the Army, but just don’t get caught. Apparently, the heat of Iraq and Afghanistan inflamed him. He also reportedly had assignations with other women.
In the matter of Joshua Tate, a former U.S. Navy football player, the lack of maturity on everyone’s part legitimately could be cited as a mitigating factor no matter what opponents of the current method of military justice might demand. Both Tate and the female fellow midshipman who clearly was pressured into accusing him of taking advantage of her while she was too drunk to resist were guilty of gross irresponsibility. This all took place at an off campus Toga/Yoga party where excessive alcohol consumption mixed badly with raging hormones.
Tate was acquitted of the allegations after three days of lurid testimony in which his alleged victim admitted she didn’t remember too much about that night. She had for nine months just fervently wished that the whole thing would go away and even asked Tate to lie for her about what happened. She finally capitulated to threats from another female classmate to bring charges.
The entire matter turned on whether one can be too drunk to consent. The judge decided the prosecution didn’t make its case that she had reached that point.
This is a tragedy for both parties. They both lose. Tate has agreed to leave the academy rather than face charges of lying. While the young lady will remain in line for a degree, she has been the object of mindless, despicable depictions in the social media and is considered a campus pariah. She and Tate and others showed hideous judgment that often accompanies college social activities, especially in high octane, rigidly disciplined schools like the military academies. Blowing off steam becomes almost a necessity.
That is not meant to trivialize or excuse what occurred here.
Unfortunately, that has gone on too long not only at the academies but in the regular callous response of the military justice system and chain of command to those women who allege sexual exploitation and harassment on the part of their superiors or are afraid to do so.
These high-profile cases — Sinclair’s and Tate’s — were affected by political pressure. In the Sinclair matter, the discovery of high-level emails discussing the political implications tainted the process. Those in and out of Congress seeking to bring major changes in the military’s adjudication of sexual abuse cases were outraged by Tate’s acquittal. Actually the original decision to go ahead with the prosecution obviously was based to some degree on concern about the political fallout.
Neither outcome should be considered prime examples for reforming an obviously bad system. In truth, the cases probably should not have been brought considering the circumstances. There was a strong implication of an angry, jilted woman in the Sinclair affair. While clearly guilty of breaking military law, he was overcharged. The burden of proof of Tate’s accuser was too heavy to carry given her own indiscretions and uncertainties.
Dan Thomasson is an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers.